The general hope among Carolina Panthers fans this offseason was at least one major signing would take place in free agency that could give everyone some kind of idea who the Panthers would target as their first pick of the 2014 NFL draft.
With a month to go, Carolina's first-round choice is still a subject of debate.
Three positions stand out as the team's biggest needs. Wide receiver, offensive tackle and cornerback are all positions that are in serious need of an upgrade, especially the offensive positions, which are all but depleted. Each need has merit, and while cornerback appears to be a distant third compared to the other two positions, Carolina general manager Dave Gettleman could shock everyone by taking a corner if it's the best player available.
However, the assumption here is that Carolina will either go with a receiver or offensive tackle, and if that is the case, it will come down to what is valued more.
On one hand, the need to give Cam Newton weapons to throw to comes into play. On the other, protecting him for the long term is just as important.
It could be argued that finding an offensive tackle, preferably a left tackle, should be the Panthers' first pick of the 2014 draft. Jordan Gross is retired, and while Byron Bell could have the backing of the coaching staff, there is a sense a better option can be found in the draft.
Another reason why taking an offensive tackle first looks to be the most likely possibility was Ron Rivera's comments about not needing a true No. 1 receiver to be successful while he attended the NFL owners meeting.
— Joe Person (@josephperson) March 27, 2014
Sure, the New England Patriots may have proven that last year by advancing all the way to the AFC title game, but the Panthers are not the Patriots, Rivera is not Bill Belichick and Newton is not Tom Brady.
That is in no way an intended slight to the Carolina organization and what they are trying to accomplish, but one is a team that has a been a dominant, championship winning team of the 21st century. The other is a small-market franchise trying to string together consecutive winning seasons for the first time in team history.
If the free-agent signings of Jerricho Cotchery and Tiquan Underwood have suggested anything, it's that the Panthers could be set on rebuilding their offense from the inside and working their way out.
The depth of the draft class at offensive tackle and wide receiver makes such a scenario very plausible. Factor in Gettleman's penchant for adding big “hog mollies” to his lines and the odds of Carolina taking a lineman first are very good.
By drafting an offensive tackle, the Panthers gain a player who can grow with the offense and become an anchor on the line, much like Gross was at the end of his career. Plus, they could add someone who could help the running game.
Regardless of averaging 126.6 yards per game in 2013, the Carolina running backs haven't enjoyed a 1,000-yard rusher in their corps since 2009. Both DeAngelo Williams and Jonathan Stewart have achieved that mark, but the latter has been limited by injuries. Newton cannot do all of the running, and having Williams and a healthy Stewart will do wonders in creating a balanced offense.
One prospect who stands out is Morgan Moses of Virginia.
He was part of the reason for the Cavaliers having a 1,000-yard rusher for the first time since 2004, and given the talent of Williams, Stewart and Mike Tolbert, he could win the battles in the trenches that will open up space on the edge. Additionally, Moses has the potential to develop into a good left tackle in the league.
Of course, he may not be the best available at his position when the Panthers are on the clock.
Two offensive tackles who likely fit Carolina's needs are Zack Martin and Cyrus Kouandjio. Martin may not make it past the middle rounds (especially with Miami needing an offensive tackle too), and Kouandjio has generated concerns about his overall health (he received a failing grade from many teams at the combine).
Despite the latter's physical setbacks, his scouting profile on CBSSports.com has suggested he is a great run-blocker and shows good patience in pass protection. His talent alone could be enough for the Panthers to overlook his previous knee injury.
While nothing has been stated as fact, there are many reasons to believe an offensive tackle will be Carolina's first choice in this year's draft. Granted, it may opt for a receiver, but the desire to protect its investment in Newton makes drafting a tackle first a very real possibility.
As stated earlier, this draft is very deep at the team's weakest positions. Anything can happen, and with plenty of talented players available late in the first, Gettleman and his staff will either make an expected pick or surprise everyone with a selection that will raise eyebrows and spark further debates.
All draft prospect information courtesy of CBSSports.com unless otherwise noted.
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